Heading to Vicarage Road was special for all kinds of reasons on Saturday. Personally, it was the first game I’d seen in the flesh since the draw against Bournemouth on the 20th September. Though the recent spate of questionable online streams have allowed me to follow the action to an extent that I did not envisage when packing up for the West Country, watching a game on a laptop while your significant other catches up on X-Factor next to you is nothing compared to sitting in a wind-blown stadium surrounded by people whose opinions you deem dubious and having a disappointing draw played out but metres from your face.
Because really, the football’s only part of it. Feeling the tension wafting down the street on your approach, smelling the burgers and the toilets, taking ten minutes to gaze mutely at the opposition’s warm-up, sure that if you look hard enough some prognostic enlightenment will come to you and being surrounded by thousands doing exactly the same is what makes being a football fan worthwhile.
And each ground has its nuances. We can see by the constantly-shifting fortunes of clubs that the football in interchangeable – if it’s good play you’re after, half the grounds in the country will be enough for you any given Saturday, but there’s no recreating the vibe of your favoured football club anywhere else, no matter how hard you try.
And that brings us onto the second reason that Saturday was particularly special. This thing…
I’m by no means a vocal fan – I mutter and occasionally spew out a string of invective at nobody in particular, but frankly, I just don’t go to football to sing. Don’t get me wrong, if fate plonks me in the middle of a rowdy group at any away match I’ll join in, but I’m happiest sat on my backside pretending to have a good read on what’s going on in front of me.
So the birth of the 1881 section wasn’t of that much interest to me. Everyone has a right to enjoy football how they like, and I was happy that those who wish to create a more constantly raucous atmosphere at Vicarage Road now had a place to do it, but it was very much a different strokes kind of deal.
But there’s no denying that of late, the section has really added to being a part of Watford, even if only watching from an adjacent stand. As the East Stand has taken shape, sound generated from the small band of merry men has started to reverberate, and has quite often led to involvement spreading around the ground – and there are flags. Say what you want about it, but I just love the sight of a good flag.
In Roy Moore, the 1881 has a leader who just gets stuff done. And that’s admirable in itself. Flags, banners and now this: a great tifo to commemorate the centenary year of the First World War and the Watford players who served in it.
The display took plenty of planning from Roy and his gang, and then an entire morning of preparation from a great bunch of volunteers: not to mention promotion from the club and a generous donation from the players for all of the materials.
If it wasn’t for Roy and all of the others involved in making it happen, nothing would have. The club have done more than enough for the anniversary with the whole away kit thing and Royal British Legion donations, but the way that every level of this community: club, players and fans, joined together to create something just for the goodness of doing it, speaks volumes about the club that we love.
We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Once questions over the ethics of the Pozzos player recruitment had died down a little, the focus of worry amongst fans and, particularly, newspaper columnists was the club’s identity. How is this famously community-driven club going to hold up in the face of uninterested and short-lived foreigners?
Relatively, I may only be a recent addition to the whole Watford thing, missing out particularly on the first coming of Graham Taylor, but I can’t remember a time that everyone around the club felt so in tune, so content with where and who we are – all mucking in together. And I think the 1881 has a lot to do with that.
The there’s this bugger:
Just look at that. It ain’t big, it ain’t clever, but it’s actually there, blinding all who sail in ’em. Who’d have bloody thought it?
Anyway, the football.
It’s one thing to go top after going through more coaches than a National Express fleet, but to do so without ever consistently playing the standard of football you’re really capable of is another. There was some lovely football on offer in short bursts on Saturday, not least for the first and third Watford goals, but for the most part the performance was flawed and lacking from several major players. And still we won 3-1 against a not unhandy side.
For the first five minutes, we were completely dominant. Not in the form that pressure usually takes – riding a wave of momentum, roaring forward and bombarding the opposition goal until the energy runs out – but in a way that showed pure domination. There was no rush, we were just able to pass through the Millwall defence, play it around at will and then whenever possession was lost, win it back again with minimal fuss.
Then we stopped, then they scored, then it got crap.
Really crap, in fact. The spine of the side was playing really poorly. Joel Ekstrand was at his indecisive worst, succumbing time and time again to a beasting from Ricardo Fuller; Daniel Toszer was rushing every pass and peppering David Forde’s area with over-hit swipes and up top Troy Deeney followed-up a number of slick exchanges with Matej Vydra with errant final balls. It wasn’t that we panicked, we just couldn’t seem to muster up the will to get going again.
The main problem, as far as I was concerned, was Keith Andrews. For that opening 25 minutes he was neither fish nor fowl. Scared of the ball in possession, and always lagging when out of it. Andrews was brought in presumably to add industry to a midfield with otherwise cultured players. But he was all bustle, and the constant stream of unhassled Millwall players strolling into our defensive third was his lookout.
In Friday’s Watford Observer, Jokanovic had vowed that the players would press more and make sure that the opposition didn’t have the time to put balls in dangerous areas. This was partly true: the front three were charging all over the shop; but the space created by their positioning high up the pitch left a gaping chasm for Millwall to work in, and our midfield trio was having nothing to do with it.
The opening goal came from such an occasion. A ball out to our right left JC Paredes completely isolated. If he’d stayed with his man, Scott McDonald would have had an age to size up a shot, if, as happened, he spread out wide to the ball, his man – Martyn Woolford – would be free to receive the ball and put it away. The whole deal was carried out in slow motion, but no support was ever forthcoming. It wasn’t entirely Andrews’ fault, but of the three, he was the one there to kick and cajole, and he was nothin’ doin’.
Luckily, my muted calls for him to be dragged off weren’t reciprocated. He grew into the game and managed to find an extra set of legs somewhere and it was he who provided what I can only imagine is our first set-piece goal of the century. Vydra received a corner short, instantly played it into Andrews who found the Czech’s run behind the static Millwall defence with a lovely lofted chip. The finish wasn’t up to much, but that didn’t dampen the significance: Alongside the fan involvement and the fourth side of the ground, a well-worked set-piece heralded the third horseman of the Apocalypse. I don’t know what the fourth, the final harbinger of doom, might have been but I’m just thankful that Lloyd wasn’t on the pitch for longer, as I’m sure he’d have been involved somehow.
Then on the stroke of half time we took an ill-deserved lead. The ref, Robert Madley, has always struck me as fairly good, certainly much better than his brother Andy, who has been responsible for some of the worst refereeing displays at the Vic in recent years. Millwall fans don’t agree. He was already in their bad books for his handling of Fuller’s theatrical tumble in the penalty area that was rightfully ignored – in fact the fact he wasn’t booked for his dive was pretty mystifying, though he did eventually pick up a yellow for his dissent.
On this occasion, however, the visiting noise had a point. Troy took the old fashioned shoulder charge to an extreme and extended his arm to push a retreating defender away. A foul in my book. He then proceeded to fall over the hunk of body mass that milliseconds earlier he had thrown to the ground. No foul, said my aforementioned book. But there stood Toszer, and there went his shot, careening through a woeful wall and past the unblinking Forde.
From then on there were no worries. It wasn’t that we improved considerably, more that Millwall deflated. They had more of the ball but apart from a garbage time shot that had to be cleared off the line by Danny Pudil created absolutely nothing of note.
We meanwhile continued to break with verve and purpose. Troy found his composure and Toszer found his range.
The two starts of the show by some distance were Vydra and the constantly-improving Deuce Ighalo. The former has really hit old form after some circumspect early performances. One of the deciding factors in this is that when he runs, we give him the ball. In early games, too many of his incisive darts behind enemy lines would be ignored by the diffident likes of Ikechi Anya and Lloyd Dyer, now we seem to have remembered that he’s fast as the clappers and really quite good at this football thing. For the third goal, Toszer, standing with the ball at his feet following a foul on Deeney, saw one such run down the left channel and punted a pass into his path. With his first touch Vydra played a perfectly-weighted ball across the box that the arriving Gianni Munari cannoned past Forde. It was another beauty that emphasised the technical ability of the players we have at our disposal.
I first saw Ighalo in the pre-season friendly with Udinese. Attending alone I reported both on here and to those absent that he had ‘great feet’ and was very promising. That phrase has been used in jest many times now – until today. I TOLD YOU HE HAS GREAT FEET.
Deployed on the flank, he completely skinned Andy Wilkinson time and time again, befuddling him with trickery and an unpredictable change of direction. In his first handful of games, Ighalo hasn’t proven much of a goal threat, barring a couple of tap-ins that he contrived to make look difficult. But put out wide and further away from the goal, he looked a lot more likely to score. He’s clearly happiest with the ball at his feet and facing the goal, not picking the ball up deep in opposition territory with everything to do. It may result in some frustrating overplaying, turning his man for a fifth time into a blind alley, but for the most part he is effective, and his trickery – much like Forestieri’s – opens up space for his fellow attackers.
This was no walk in the park, but equally there wasn’t anything particularly alarming about it either. Despite stinking out the place for over an third of the game, we still rode out a fair comfortable two goal victory, despite what Ian Holloway might say.
As the whole side – apart from Lloyd Dyer who sprinted straight off and Lewis McGugan who tried to go down the tunnel as soon as our third sub was made – did a brief circle of the ground to applaud the fans, there wasn’t the feeling that this run of good-enough form is going to end any time soon. Especially given that we have two of our best players to come back from injuries.
And now, writing this, I’m on the train back to Bristol: trundling away from my footballing family at whatever speed First Great Western deem to be most infuriating to their passengers. But I know that whenever I return, there’s a bloody great club waiting for me.